J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 05, 2019

“Otis indulged himself in all his Airs”

So far I’ve been discussing the affray between Customs official John Robinson and Boston politician James Otis, Jr., in the context of larger politics—the non-importation campaign in Boston, and the leaks of royal government documents from London.

But personal factors might have been even more important in how events unfolded. For those I turn to the diary of John Adams.

The day after Robinson and Otis had their private conversation over coffee was Sunday, 3 Sept 1769, and Adams wrote:
Heard Dr. [Samuel] Cooper in the forenoon, Mr. [Judah?] Champion of Connecticutt in the Afternoon and Mr. [Ebenezer] Pemberton in the Evening at the Charity Lecture.

Spent the Remainder of the Evening and supped with Mr. Otis, in Company with Mr. [Samuel] Adams, Mr. Wm. Davis, and Mr. Jno. Gill. The Evening spent in preparing for the Next Days Newspaper—a curious Employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurences, &c.—working the political Engine!

Otis talks all. He grows the most talkative Man alive. No other Gentleman in Company can find a Space to put in a Word—as Dr. Swift expressed it, he leaves no Elbow Room. There is much Sense, Knowledge, Spirit and Humour in his Conversation. But he grows narrative, like an old Man. Abounds with Stories.
The next day, Monday, Adams and his social club met at the home of Dr. James Pecker (1724-1794). This club often talked about politics, though Pecker was a mild Loyalist. Adams wrote:
Spent the Evening at Dr. Peckers, with the Clubb. Mr. Otis introduced a Stranger, a Gentleman from Georgia, recommended to him by the late Speaker of the House in that Province.

Otis indulged himself in all his Airs. Attacked the Aldermen, [Henderson] Inches and [Samuel] Pemberton, for not calling a Town meeting to consider the Letters of the Governor, General, Commodore, Commissioners, Collector, Comptroller &c.— charged them with Timidity, Haughtiness, Arbitrary Dispositions, and Insolence of Office.

But not the least Attention did he shew to his Friend the Georgian.—No Questions concerning his Province, their Measures against the Revenue Acts, their Growth, Manufactures, Husbandry, Commerce—No general Conversation, concerning the Continental Opposition—Nothing, but one continued Scene of bullying, bantering, reproaching and ridiculing the Select Men.—Airs and Vapours about his Moderatorship [of town meetings], and Membership, and [Thomas] Cushings Speakership.—There is no Politeness nor Delicacy, no Learning nor Ingenuity, no Taste or Sense in this Kind of Conversation.
We can see Otis’s concern about the documents from London here, but Adams said he didn’t show a concern for the larger struggle. What’s more, Adams, who generally admired Otis, was really put off by how he was dominating all conversations with his stories and criticism of other Whigs.

Otis’s modern biographers, such as John J. Waters, have noted earlier moments when he acted irrationally, when his political pronouncements shifted suddenly and surprised his allies. Otis may have been dealing with bipolar disorder, and in this early September going through a period of manic behavior. Which casts a different light on what he did the next day.

TOMORROW: The paragraphs they cooked up.

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